Sunday, October 23, 2011

Underrated Movie #136: Salvador

Title: Salvador
Year: 1986
Director: Oliver Stone
Writers: Oliver Stone, Richard Boyle
Stars: James Woods, James Belushi, Michael Murphy, John Savage

The Story: The (mostly) true story of Richard Boyle, a gonzo journalist who roadtrips with a drinking buddy down to El Salvador to cover the horrific events of 1980, only to get in way over his head.

How it Came to be Underrated: This wound up coming out the same year as Stone’s follow-up movie, Platoon, which became his breakthrough. They competed against each other for Best Screenplay. Platoon won that and Best Picture, but this one was quickly forgotten, though I think it’s aged much better.

Why It’s Great:

  1. How do you tell the story of an atrocity? All too often, the focus is put on the most saintly and blameless of the victims, as if only certain people don’t deserve to be killed. This movie could not be more different: the point of view through which we see these tragic events is one of the sleaziest, funniest, and most believable journalists ever portrayed. (It helps that the villains were literally raping and killing nuns, so it’s not like anybody was going to side with them. Except Reagan.)
  2. Stone got home from Vietnam and wrote Platoon in the mid-‘70s, but couldn’t get it made yet. The popularity of that script made him a top screenwriter, but he really wanted to direct. Before Salvador, his only studio directing job was the hilariously bad horror movie The Hand, in which Michael Caine had an evil hand he couldn’t control. This independent labor of love was his last shot, but it paid off big time and finally got him the chance to finally make his other dream projects.
  3. In the special features, they explain that Stone’s insane plan was to shoot in El Salvador, where the civil war was still going strong, and trick the death squads into providing all the production value by giving them a phony script in which they were the good guys. This plan was only abandoned after their technical advisor was killed by another group of rebels during pre-production. Stone shot in Mexico instead, on a shoestring budget, but somehow made it look like an old school epic, complete with a stirring “Battle of Santa Ana” cavalry charge.
  4. But, watching this, you can’t help but wonder what’s happened to Stone. His direction here is simple, elegant and brutally efficient, reminiscent of Costa-Gravas and Pontecorvo. It’s totally the opposite of the bloated, jittery messes he makes today.
  5. Woods has been one of our great character actors for almost forty years, but he can also do amazing work in lead roles when he gets the chance. His manic energy makes every moment in this movie tense and electrifying, earning him his only best actor nomination. This proves that he can carry a movie and then some. (Believe it or not, Belushi is also very good)

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Woods also did great work in Stone’s second-most-underrated movie, Nixon.

How Available Is It?: It’s got a great DVD with a wild, hilarious, in-depth hourlong documentary about the movie’s insane production history, detailing the escalating war onset between Woods (the only sane one) and everybody else (who were all suicidal maniacs.) There’s also a great commentary by Stone.

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j.s. said...

You nailed the appeal of the film for me with bullet point number one. It's all about the Woods' character as a point of entry into this world. There are no good guys here. Just bad guys (Woods) and worse guys (almost everyone else).

No movie has ever used Woods better either except maybe Cronenberg's VIDEODROME, in which he plays a similarly super-smart, sleazy and self-involved media man.

I like Oliver Stone a lot, consider him very underrated. Even his most famous films get talked about for the wrong reasons. The visual aesthetic that he introduced to mainstream feature films in JFK, NIXON and NATURAL BORN KILLERS combined ideas from Errol Morris' documentaries, Peckinpah's action editing and Soviet montage and his own brilliant cinematographer Robert Richardson's searching eye to create a genuinely new way of telling stories that's been hugely influential ever since.

As for Stone's recent output, I'm a big fan of W., which took interesting risks in a number of ways, and I still think Stone has more great films in him.

Anonymous said...

Very few filmmakers I dislike more than Stone, but I will try to give this a shot. Hopefully it’s better than NBK